Shock Power of Love is being advertised as a split, but it doesn’t even pretend to give Burial and Blackdown equal footing. Burial is allowed to splatter his epic treatises on love across nine or ten minutes of vinyl, with Blackdown consigned to four minutes apiece for his comparatively workaday contributions. Given that Shock Power of Love is coming out on Blackdown’s Keysound label versus Burial’s usual home on Hyperdub, we can assume this is by choice. Maybe the boss lured Burial in by acquiescing to a 25-75 split while seizing an opportunity to have his tracks heard; he’s better-known, after all, as a label boss and author of Pitchfork’s one-time “Grime/Dubstep” column. But though “This Journey VIP” has the same loping, rainy power as some of the best Burial music, his remix of Heatmap’s “Arklight” could come from any number of bass-music white-labels, and no one is going to argue based on this release that he’s some sort of auteur on par with his better-known vinylmate.
Burial’s two tracks, meanwhile, are so unapologetically arty that his anonymity must have been the only thing keeping him from feeling a little sheepish about them. Dialogue snippets like “come on, this way!” and a sense of Christian dread align “Dark Gethsemane” as much with the epic-collage tradition (E+E’s “Sword”, Croatian Amor’s “Into Salt”) as with the rave nostalgia and druggy uplift Burial’s increasingly mined in his music since 2013’s Rival Dealer EP. The first five minutes of “Dark Gethsemane” tower above the rest of the EP, with a vocal sample tweaked until it’s saying one of the coolest words in the New Testament. So great is the sense of decaying Gothic grandeur that when his characteristic knife-blade sample drops, we half-expect a Bloodborne boss to charge us with twin swords in hand. And the beat finds a nice middle ground between the stop-starts we know and love and the more relentless approach of house and techno.
But then the track starts to fade out, and a sampled preacher—maybe the third cousin of the guy on Rhythm Controll’s “My House”—starts screaming, “we must shock this nation with the power of love!” His voice is digitally pitch-shifted by three or four semitones, by the way, so that he’s stripped of all dignity and sounds like a chipmunk. The intent seems to be to combine the uplift of rave music, with its screaming and disembodied voices, and the ability of church music to summon a ruckus with which to keep evil at bay. It’s both meanings of “ecstatic” at once. But Burial’s darkness is so alluring it doesn’t need penetrating. That’s even more apparent on “Space Cadet”, whose pistoning major chords and shrieking house divas (“take my hand!”) seem to exist in some kind of philosophical interpretation of the dancefloor rather than the world of fog and smoke in which Burial’s music usually takes place.
It’s tempting to say Burial saves his best work for Hyperdub, but something’s been lost in Burial’s transition away from worldbuilding towards this more emotional approach. Rival Dealer was meant to inspire listeners to “believe in themselves”, and I found its Trevor Project truisms shallower than a lot of other critics did. Now he’s seemingly zeroed in on this mission to inspire his listeners, and it’s a lot less compelling than when his music was steeped in sci-fi gloom. Nobody is better at cyberpunk atmosphere than Burial. However, plenty of producers are better at translating the occasional feel-good of the dancefloor to record: India Jordan, for instance, whose For You last year made dance music sound genuinely like a medium for epiphanies. Burial’s one of the rare producers able to conjure a whole universe. It seems he’s finished exploring it before we have.